Tightening race rattles Clinton World’s nerves

Getty Images

Allies of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump won't 'save' Social Security, but ruin it Retired general attacks Trump in new Clinton ad Trump: Clinton's Syria policy would lead to 'World War III' MORE are growing nervous as the Democratic presidential race with Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders warns Clinton: Don't rush to compromise with GOP The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? The evidence backs Trump: We have a duty to doubt election results MORE tightens ahead of contests in Nevada and South Carolina. 

A new CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday found Clinton with a 1-point lead in Nevada, which hosts its caucuses on Saturday. That’s a huge change from the 23-point lead Clinton enjoyed in a late December poll by Gravis.

In South Carolina, which hosts its primary election on Feb. 27, Clinton has a more comfortable 18-point lead according to a CNN/ORC poll. But even that edge has narrowed since Sanders crushed her in New Hampshire’s primary last week. 

As recently as mid-January, a poll from NBC, The Wall Street Journal and Marist found Clinton with a 33-point lead in South Carolina. 

“I don’t get it. I don’t think anyone expected this race to look like this,” said one former Clinton aide who maintains ties with the campaign. “A big loss in New Hampshire, basically a tie going into Nevada. You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s next?' "

Team Clinton maintains confidence that its lead in South Carolina will hold, but the potential loss in Nevada has put people on edge about a “domino effect” in which states could fall one by one to Sanders as he gains momentum. 

“It’s hard to feel confident about South Carolina if you lose Nevada,” the former aide said.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former spokesman Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidGOP groups ride to rescue in 3 key Senate races Obama seeks down-ballot gains after being midterm loser Reid: 'I have set the Senate' for nuclear option MORE (Nev.), said he believes Clinton will ultimately eke out a victory in Nevada because the state is “tailor-made for her" with its large population of minority voters. 

Clinton's campaign is banking on support from Hispanics in the state. According to the 2014 U.S. Census, 27.8 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Yet Manley even acknowledged that “folks are giving Sanders a second look” there.

“He’s got some good momentum. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Internally, both Hillary and former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonTotal debate audience sets all-time record The Hill's 12:30 Report Mosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict MORE have voiced their displeasure with various aspects of the campaign, particularly on messaging and organizing, according to sources. Those involved with the campaign increasingly believe a staff reshuffling will take place, especially if Clinton loses in Nevada. 

“The shit will hit the fan,” one longtime friend of the Clintons predicted. “No doubt about it.”

“I think there’s real genuine concern about Bernie’s momentum and that the firewall doesn’t seem to be holding back the fire,” the friend said. “I don’t think people think she isn’t going to win the nomination. But I do think people think it’ll take a lot more money and a lot more time.”

Separate polling data released on Wednesday gave some comfort to the Clintons.  

Public Policy Polling surveys found Clinton with leads in 10 of the 12 states that will host contests on March 1, just three days after the South Carolina primary. 

Clinton holds a double-digit lead in nine of those states, the surveys indicate.

If those findings are accurate and they hold, Super Tuesday could deliver a huge victory for Clinton raising serious concerns for Sanders. 

The fear for the Clintons is that Sanders will follow up his victory in New Hampshire with a win in Nevada and that this could give him momentum in South Carolina. 

And if Sanders can win South Carolina, or even significantly narrow the gap, fears of disappearing Clinton leads will grow. 

Several Clinton surrogates and associates interviewed on Wednesday said they were worried Sanders could pull out a win in Nevada. 

“You don’t want a streak, and with two losses in a row, you’re starting a streak,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the thinking of the senior officials on the Clinton campaign. “Inside the deep legions of the Clinton campaign, they remember what happened when Barack ObamaBarack ObamaThe 'October Surprise' our troops weren't counting on Mosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict Obama reads round two of ‘mean tweets’ on 'Kimmel' MORE won in a streak. It was over.”

Even a near win for Sanders, would be perceived as a moral victory. And even a small Clinton victory would satisfy Sanders donors enough to keep fueling the campaign.